Director: Ridley Scott
Notable Cast: Tom Cruise, Mia Sara, Tim Curry, David Bennent, Alice Playten, Billy Barty, Cork Hubbert, Peter O’Farrell, Kiran Shah, Annabelle Lanyon, Robert Picardo
It’s no secret that Ridley Scott is one of the most prolific directors still working. At the age of 83, the man is releasing two films in the final quarter of 2021 (The Last Duel and House of Gucci for those wondering) and his career is just as diverse in subject matter as the gap between those two films. However, while his directorial trajectory over the decades has had its roller coaster moments of quality, his early work is essential viewing. Genre fans, in particular, owe a great deal to the semi-auteur director. Whether it’s Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, or Gladiator, Scott has produced films that have a significant legacy to them.
Of course, then there’s Legend.
Scott’s 1985 fantasy opus, starring an up-and-coming who’s who of young talent and featuring a truly ethereal sense of whimsy, darkness, and adventure, was actively met with disdain or apathy at the time of its release. It was often compared by critics and audiences to his previous film, Blade Runner, as a film lost in technicality and missing real characters or plots. Keep in mind that the mentioned science fiction epic was also met with disdain and/or apathy on its release. Yet, just like that film, Legend has garnered a vivacious cult fan base since then for all of the same reasons it was dismissed. Enough so that Arrow Video has deemed it worthy of a luscious new 4K restoration and collector’s edition package.
Even as a child who grew up with Legend, it never quite grabbed me. It was a film that felt like it should be a kid’s film - complete with all of the fantasy fixins’ like unicorns, goblins, fairies, and gorgeous fantasy lands to adventure through, but without the easy to consume plots, morals, and characters for kids. It’s a film I’ve rarely returned to and this recent watch was the first in 15+ years. Color me as bright and surprising as the visuals of the film to say that this most recent viewing had me enjoying the film a million times more than ever before.
Mainly, Legend is fucking gorgeous. Between the massive set designs, including its lush forests, frostbitten ice lands, ooey-gooey bogs, or the hellish interiors of the underground caves where the film’s villain resides, and the jaw dropping makeup and effects by Rob Bottin, Scott slathers the film in stunning visuals. Scene after scene, Legend continually ups the pop of its visuals in brilliant ways. It’s a feast for the eyes from beginning to end.
Oftentimes, high end fantasy can be lost in its universe creation with exposition that comes across like historical textbook paragraphs rather than world building that feels lived in. This is not the case with Legend, however, but it can still be a rather impenetrable wall for many viewers. It’s plot is very unsteady, where a pre-Top Gun, pre-tooth fairy Tom Cruise (in a rare fantastical performance) must challenge the sheer film-swallowing presence of Tim Curry as a very horny devil named Darkness because the damn boy is smitten by the mischievous Princess Lili, played by an extremely loose performance by Mia Sara.
It’s a classic fantasy story, but Legend is not a film that seems all that interested in an easily discernible and clear-cut plot. There’s a plot with a unicorn horn being sawed off and the potential for some kind of magical apocalypse at hand, but there are no real-world aspects to tether it to for its audience. Yes, Jack must traverse many lands to save Lili, secure the horn, and punch Darkness in the throat, but I have no clue just how hard that journey is without the grounding. Thus, it all feels a bit disconnected.
With a bevy of the broad stroke characters, which includes an incredible secondary cast of various goblins and fairies that fit all of the stereotypes associated with the magical creatures, it would even seem that Legend is not wholly interested in firmly defining the characters either. If it wasn’t for some impressive performances (did I mention that Tim Curry is eating scenery wholesale here?), the love story at its core between Jack and Lili feels fleeting despite it serving as a large part of the main plot.
And yet, for this watch, none of these things bothered me like they have in the past. Legend is painted in such a way that all of these thinly scripted elements only feed into the all-encompassing single reason that this film works. Scott is masterful at guiding the mentioned aspects of the film into one direction, an ethereal, dream like cinematic experience. It’s this slow-motion otherworldly drama, scored arrestingly by Tangerine Dream, that allows this sweeping dream-like quality in tonality that feels emotional and poignant. Is the script really thin or is the intention to focus on the feelings rather than the facts? Are the characters ungrounded specifically to match the dream-like adventure feelings throughout? Absolutely. Legend may never act like a kids movie, particularly in the evil and dark elements that pop up throughout like Meg Muckbones in the swamp, but it has the childlike feeling of a daydream made flesh. It’s utterly striking to me as an adult.
With the new restoration, Legend looks and sounds better than ever. Whether or not one buys into the film’s choices, which to be honest are Big, Bold, and Bright in crafting a refreshingly dream-like fantasy world, is how the film plays out. Perhaps it just took a decade or two for me to finally buy into what Scott is selling in this divisive film, but now that I have - it’s incredibly hard not to love it for the audacity and aspirations in creating such a strange cinematic world.
Legend is not the easiest film to consume, but embracing the dream is part of the experience.